Good Karaoke

In 2017, the Chainsmokers appeared as the musical guests on the April 8 episode of Saturday Night Live. Their performance was only marginally better than their disastrous showing at the 2016 VMAs — Andrew Taggart’s singing voice is flat, his stage presence straddles the line between nonexistent and awkward, and the only suggestion of live instrumentation comes from obvious mixing errors and some dissonant, unfamiliar sounds that pop up in the middle of the tracks.

But these things are only problems if you judge this appearance as a normal live performance by a musical act. Instead, try this: look into Taggart’s eyes right before he starts singing. You’ll see a hesitation familiar to anyone who has attended a bachelorette party or drunkenly wandered through a resort on a Sunday night. The only honest way to evaluate the Chainsmokers’ SNL appearance is to think of it as karaoke — and by those standards, it’s pretty damn good.

Karaoke follows a different set of rules than most kinds of public performance. Enthusiasm takes precedence over talent. Even though karaoke is ostensibly an activity built around singing, the performer doesn’t actually need to know how to sing. The magic of karaoke is that it’s all-inclusive, with no barrier to entry. If you have the physical ability and the mental fortitude the approach the microphone, you have all the tools you need to command the stage.

Because of this, the criteria for success are wildly different — in karaoke, a performance by an untrained vocalist can be absolutely thrilling. Watching someone bring forth the fullness of their limited vocal ability, drawing on a deep and hidden passion to sell a song on the strength of pure conviction; that sort of experience can lift the mood of an entire bar, and make a room full of drunken strangers into an ecstatic audience.

You can only bend the rules so far, though. It’s empowering to watch an amateur crooner live the truth, but the flip-side is almost unbearable. You don’t want to see anyone struggle. Schadenfreude has no place in a karaoke bar. You don’t want to see that look of panic when a singer realizes they’ve chosen a song that’s completely out of their range, and they’re up in front of everyone without a back-up plan. They’re more or less imprisoned on that stage for the next three-to-five minutes, and all you can do is cringe along with them and applaud politely after their sentence has been served.

This is more or less how it feels to watch Chainsmokers performing “Paris” on SNL — which is strange, considering that they wrote the song themselves. Theoretically, Taggart should be familiar enough with ‘Paris’ that there are no surprises, no vocal challenges he is unable to overcome. But watching him perform, you don’t get the feeling that he’s prepared for this, at all. He wanders around the stage, visibly struggling to imbue his words with any sort of feeling. His (and our) only respite comes from co-writer and back-up singer Emily Warren, who bears some weight of the vocal burden, but her effortless delivery only highlights how much trouble Taggart is having.

In karaoke, this sort of unbalanced duet is usually the result of someone haphazardly picking a song to perform with their friend, only to discover that the distribution of the vocals is much less even than expected. One of them spends the entire performance standing off to the side, singing a couple of lines every other verse, while the unwitting lead singer awkwardly shrugs at them from center stage. This is why it’s best not to get too experimental with group numbers — don’t pick “Roses” by Outkast just because your friend knows the entire Big Boi verse if you’re not sure you can live up to Andre 3000’s unique vocals on the chorus. Poo-ooo-ooo, indeed.

“Break Up Every Night” is significantly less embarrassing, but it’s still not perfect: the sudden, unnecessary modulations in Taggart’s voice throughout the performance are the classic giveaway of someone trying unsuccessfully to switch between octaves in the hopes of salvaging their performance. And Taggart’s breath control is remarkably poor, which becomes apparent whenever he tries to shake things up and over-exerts himself. But still, “Break Up Every Night” is an up-tempo song with few held notes and a bratty pop-punk energy, so it doesn’t ask for anything that Taggart can’t provide.

Besides an adequate vocal, the main thing that Taggart brings to the song is energy. It’s not the energy of a seasoned performer — in between a couple of flashy, clearly pre-planned moments, he bounces awkwardly around the stage with no real goal or direction. But because no one could mistake Taggart’s dance moves for choreography, it becomes clear that he’s engaging with the song in an authentic, unrehearsed way, complete with exactly the sort of faux-rock-star posturing that can really win the crowd over. If someone leapt off of a drum set onto the stage at a karaoke bar, they’d be a legend — provided they weren’t immediately escorted from the premises.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you find Taggart’s unpolished performance to be embarrassing instead of charming. “He can’t sing,” you might say, “and he shouldn’t be up there in front of everyone.” If that’s the case, consider this: in order to be a truly great karaoke performer, you actually can’t be a good singer.

I will grant you that this rule seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t it be inspirational to attend an event designed for amateur singing and see someone really knock one out of the park? Isn’t this the reason that people watch American Idol? In theory, yes — though, really, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about American Idol? In practice, it’s exhilarating to see an unassuming bar-goer emerge from the crowd and absolutely slay a performance of Prince’s “Kiss.” But the reality is far more complex, and it gets right at the heart of why people even do karaoke in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why a person might want to do karaoke: you’re at the birthday party of a particularly extroverted friend, or you found a great deal on tequila shots, or maybe you just lost a bet. But we mostly do it because we have an innate, underfed need to perform. Not everyone possesses this need, but it’s more common than we might think. And because most people don’t have an outlet for this kind of creative energy, they have little practice. So it stands to reason that most karaoke performances are technically lackluster: the people who need karaoke don’t have a normal outlet for this pent-up energy.

But what does this say about karaoke performers who have talent, who are so obviously skilled that you can identify them as trained, semi-professional singers as soon as they open their mouths? It’s impressive, to be sure, and it’s almost always a pleasant surprise at first. But even still, there’s something a little off-putting about it. Even as you applaud the person’s dazzling vocal ability and obvious performing chops, you can feel a low-grade depression settling in your chest.

It doesn’t matter how joyous the song or how innocuous the context, watching a truly skilled singer do karaoke suggests something like a minor tragedy: a person who has devoted their lives to the performing arts but still lacks the proper outlet. The professional and artistic success they pursue remains painfully out of reach, so they’re forced to look for it elsewhere, and they end up in a room full of amateurs, out-classing everyone around them but still coming up empty.

It’s not a crime to be over-qualified at karaoke. It doesn’t make things unfair or unbalanced; in the rare situation where karaoke is performed competitively, the stakes are so comically low that bringing in a ringer isn’t worth the trouble. But karaoke should be a joyous, life-affirming experience, and there’s nothing uplifting about a person who wants more out of their life but just can’t seem to find it.

Say this for The Chainsmokers: they might be failing upwards, but they’re still moving up. Watching them perform karaoke on a national level might make you angry, but it doesn’t make you sad.